GOP ‘ministry of truth’ slurs against Biden’s disinformation board expose their own political tricks, experts say
A longstanding Department of Homeland Security effort to combat foreign disinformation has touched off outrage amount Republicans who say the department is assembling an Orwellian “ministry of truth,” but experts and former GOP insiders say the sturm-und-drang over the DHS program shows how much the Trump-era iteration of the Party of Lincoln has come to depend on lying as a political strategy and therefore fears not being able to count on their lies going unchallenged.
Last week, Fox News reporters began pressing White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about a news item, first reported by Politico, which stated that DHS was standing up a “disinformation governance board” to counter foreign disinformation and misinformation “related to homeland security,” led by ex-Wilson Center fellow Nina Jankowicz.
Ms Jankowicz, who holds a master’s degree in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, is a well-known expert who has studied the nexus between democracy and technology and how disinformation can undermine democracies, with a particular specialisation in Central and Eastern Europe.
But the appointment of Ms Jankowicz to helm DHS’s anti-disinformation efforts touched off a a geyser of grievance among Republican officeholders and their conservative media allies, citing public statements she’d made describing the October 2020 New York Post reporting on a laptop thought to have belonged to Hunter Biden as a “Trump campaign product” and other statements perceived to be at odds with conservative media narratives regarding Mr Biden and Mr Trump.
Though a 2 May fact sheet released by DHS laid out the department’s aims, including a focus on “disinformation that threatens the security of the American people, including disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China, and Iran, or other adversaries such as transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations,” Republicans were animated by the false belief that the Biden administration was establishing some manner of universal arbiter of what is true and what is not for political purposes.
At a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Senator Rand Paul appeared to believe the DHS board would be retroactively fact-checking news outlets, and asked Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas if the board would have deemed the infamous dossier on Donald Trump compiled by a former MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, to be “Russian disinformation”.
After Mr Mayorkas explained the board’s function, to ensure "guardrails, definitions,” and “standards" meant to safeguard civil rights, privacy, and free speech, Mr Paul resumed his complaints.
"Here's the problem: We can't even agree what disinformation is. You can't even agree that it was disinformation that the Russians fed information to the Steele dossier," Mr Paul noted. "If you can't agree to that, how are we ever going to come to an agreement on what is disinformation so you can police it on social media?"
The Kentucky senator said the “greatest propagator of disinformation” in world history has been the US government, and accused Mr Mayorkas of having “no idea what disinformation is”.
"You think the American people are so stupid they need you to tell them what the truth is? You can't even admit what the truth is with the Steele dossier. I don't trust government to figure out what the truth is," he said.
And on Thursday, more than 170 Republican members of the House of Representatives signed on to a belligerent letter to Mr Mayorkas calling the board “problematic” and suggesting that “an organization charged with securing the homeland engaging in anything that could have an impact on speech” raises ethical concerns because, in their estimation, it “could be utilized as a political tool under the guise of security”.
The Republican representatives added that the DHS efforts to combat disinformation would take away from the department’s “primary mission sets,” including securing the US border.
But Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, said combatting disinformation is a necessary aspect of the department’s core border security mission.
Mr Reichlin-Melnick said human traffickers and smuggling operations have long preyed upon vulnerable people looking to come to the US through a variety of disinformation streams, including social media and traditional media advertising.
“This is a bipartisan issue that has been something that the Trump administration struggled with, the Obama administration struggled with, and now the Biden administration is struggling with. Many people arrive at the southern border with false ideas about what US border policy looks like. That's because — not surprisingly — people who are fleeing their home countries are not going on to Google and checking for relevant US laws and policy before they leave,” he said.
“People often receive their information about US border policy through WhatsApp groups, through Facebook memes, and through TikToks and other forms of social media that is often incorrect — there is also disinformation that is pushed out by migrant smugglers who are trying to drum up demand for people to pay to leave their home countries and come to the United States”.
He said a significant number of families who arrived at the US-Mexico border during 2018 and 2019 — at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated parents from their children upon arrival — “sincerely believed” then-president Donald Trump had “passed a law allowing any migrant families arriving at the border to be admitted into the United States”.
“Of course, the idea that President Trump was a pro-migrant president is absurd on its face, but many people arrived to the border truly, honestly, believing that because they have been told so by smugglers,” he said.
Yet the real-world consequences of foreign disinformation don’t seem to be an operative concern for many in conservative media.
According to Media Matters for America — a liberal group which monitors conservative news outlets including Fox News – Fox mentioned the DHS plan more in more than 100 weekday segments over the last nine days, with prime time hosts such as Tucker Carlson describing the effort in bizarre terms such as calling it Mr Biden’s “Ministry of Truth”.
Kayla Gogarty, a researcher with Media Matters, said GOP and conservative media outrage over Ms Jankowicz and the DHS board is part of a familiar pattern in which Fox programming and Republican politicians stoke anger over some “shiny object”.
“It's a lot of that same fearmongering and misinformation that we see coming out of the right,” she explained. It's this one big ecosystem, with Fox News, pushing it out to their large swath of audiences”.
Michael Steele, the former Maryland Lieutenant Governor and Republican National Committee chairman, told The Independent members of the Trump-era iteration of his party tend to show “a particular sensitivity about disinformation” because they themselves traffic in what he called “some of the most profoundly corrosive disinformation there is”.
“When you hear someone like Ron Johnson talking about how we should be afraid for our liberty and our values? Yeah, we've been listening to you for the last few years and we are concerned — that's why this was created,” he said.
Republicans in both the House and Senate have already vowed to block DHS from spending any funds on combatting disinformation if they take control of Congress next year.
But Mr Steele said there’s a better way for members of his party to short-circuit the need for DHS to do anything about disinformation.
“If you want it to go away, you don't need to cut the budget, you don't need to defund it — just stop lying,” he said.
“It’s amazing to me, but this is how they twist the narrative, and they wrap it in the flag and liberty and values. And they're crapping on all of that”.